Handhelds Are Retro Gaming Consoles

By Gus Mastrapa in Pretension +1
Friday, September 23, 2011 at 9:00 am
I can't say I'm in love with my 3DS. Not the way that I was enamored with my DS. I've told you before that weird games made me love the Nintendo DS. But I don't think that's what motivates the average game consumer. I may love bizarro stuff like Elite Beat Agents and Phoenix Wright, but that stuff is a hard sell to Joe GameBoy.

If you want to see what really appeals to the public you only have to look at the list of best-selling Nintendo DS games to see what they really want -- the want to play old school games. New Super Mario Brothers moved over 26 million units. Scroll down and you'll see a butt-load of Pokemon games filling out the top ten. I'm starting to think that handhelds were their best when they were delivering the kinds of experiences we used to have on classic consoles like the NES and Super NES.

Once handhelds moved past the days of the 16-bit consoles they started to lose their way.
Ask most people what their favorite PSP game is and a good many of them will name Lumines -- a game that is, at its heart, like Tetris. Sure it comes embellished with the kind of fancy visuals and thumping music that would have been impossible on the consoles of yesteryear. But mechanically Lumines is decidedly retro -- it is a simple puzzle game. 

When I look at my PSP game library it is dominated by side-scrollers, puzzle games and re-releases of old Square Enix RPGs. The same goes for the Nintendo DS. I hung on to Super Mario 64 for old time's sake. But I'd never play it again because the controls suck. Stylus controls for 3D games were a nifty experiment, but a failed one. That's one of the biggest downfalls of the last generation of handhelds -- their technology was capable of creating 3D environments, but their single-stick layouts weren't capable of making them navigable. 

I think about the hours upon hours spent playing my GameBoy, GameBoy Advance and the fabulous GameBoy Micro. Never once did I complain about how the games controlled. I had some buttons, I had a d-pad and I was good. I liked the Nintendo DS despite the fact that 3D games were a pain in the ass to play. That's because hard-to-wrangle games like Metroid Prime Hunters were the exception rather than the rule.

That's my biggest concern about this next generation of handheld games. There are too few classic-feeling games for the Nintendo 3DS. And Sony's Vita seems dominated by console games like Uncharted and God of War shrunken down to size. I have a feeling that Jonathan Mak's Soundshapes is going to be the Lumines of the that machine. My only hope is that Sony is able to fill their market with great downloadable games. I'm not going to hold my breath though -- both Nintendo and Sony are way behind Apple in the lightweight app game.

At the very least Sony had the good sense to put a second analog stick on their new machine. You may have heard the nerd ruckus caused when word surfaced that an ugly peripheral would add a second stick to the Nintendo 3DS. I can't say I'm terribly mad about it. I won't get suckered in if Nintendo decides to revise their hardware and add a second stick. The old fashioned games I'll be playing, like Fire Emblem, won't benefit from it. And you won't catching me playing Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater. If I want to play that game I'll play it on my TV.

I'm more interested in HD remakes of PlayStation 2 games than I am in seeing the same games shoehorned onto the Nintendo 3DS. I don't mind admitting that I want more of the same. I want old-school platformers, tactics games and role-playing games. Sure I'll take the occasional Animal Crossing or Nintendogs, but for the most part I when I pick up a handheld I want to play a tried and true gaming genre with perfect controls.

That's another reason why I love the iOS platform so much. Most of the games I play on my iPad feel like arcade games. And they're priced like them too. They control simply and intuitively. I hope the day never comes that mobile phone games are dominated by flashy games in 3D worlds. That's what my Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC are for. 

When it comes to the Vita and 3DS give me retro, give me a ton of it and make it quick. 

Pretension +1 is a weekly column by Gus Mastrapa that explores the culture of video games, trying to shed light on what we love about games and why we play them. 
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